It’s the unofficial start of grilling season. (Sorry veggie fans, this one isn’t for you.) Nothing makes the Bookish Diva happier than to bite into a perfectly grilled piece of meat. There is something about the combination of natural juices and char that uniquely defines all that is good about summer cooking.

By definition, char is the solid material that remains after light gases and tar have been driven out or released from a carbonaceous material during the initial stage of combustion, which is known as carbonization, charring, devolatilization or pyrolysis.

That seems like a lot of words to describe the deliciousness created when meat meets grill, as our friends Grill Daddy and the Big Chill have proven.

Delicious juicy rib eye steak on a barbecue grill with flames

Yes this Bookish Diva knows that there have been many studies detailing the potential dangers of consuming grilled meats. Here is where I utilize all my science background. We should all be aware that the National Cancer Institute warns heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when meat is cooked at high temperatures, like pan frying or grilling over an open flame. Those delicious charred bits at the edges of meat contain HCAs in their purest state. PAHs form when juices from meat drip onto coals or other hot surfaces and create smoke.

Sadly for this Bookish Diva, HCAs and PAHs have been found to be mutagenic—meaning they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer. But before we all freak out and toss our grills, let this Bookish Diva, possessor of a nifty degree in biology, remind you that the amounts of HCAs and PAHs given to the test subjects was ridiculously high. By ridiculously high, I mean thousands of times higher than the amount that the average person would consume in a normal diet.

picnic with grill

While there aren’t definitive guidelines for how much char, and its unwanted baggage HCA and PAH, can be safely consumed, there is no reason to abandon the grilled meats we love so much. There are ways to reduce the amount of HCAs and PAHs to which we are exposed while maintain the tastiness that we crave. You can use these tips while trying out the recipes in our featured book.

  • Make sure that your grill is clean before using
  • Precook meat slightly before grilling (a quick 60-90 seconds in the microwave should do the trick)
  • Avoid direct exposure to an open flame
  • Use citrus or vinegar based marinades because it prevent PAHs from sticking
  • Continuously turn meat if cooking at a high  temperature to reduce HCA formation
  • Remove the charred portions of the meat (a blasphemous, but necessary suggestion)
  • Forego the meat altogether and give grilled veggies a try. I know what I said, but grilled veggies can be tasty. Not as tasty as steak, but tasty nonetheless.

Recommended reading:

bbqSouthern Living Ultimate Book of BBQ: The Complete Year-Round Guide to Grilling and Smoking by the editors of Southern Living and Chris Prieto (Oxmoor House, 2015)

Barbecue has been an art form in the South for generations and the editors of Southern Living magazine have collected 200 of their highest-rated recipes for barbecued meats and sides, as well as tips, techniques and juicy secrets in this colorful volume.

What are you grilling this Memorial Day? Share in the comments below!